|My older sisters and me on the front steps of my personal old Kentucky home.|
There were a few things that distinguished me, but they were modest: I was shy to the point of whispering. I wore glasses. I collected empty boxes, which I hid under my bed, a fire hazard, people said. And I was born in Louisville, Kentucky.
The six older kids were all born in Quincy, Ill., where Guv had attended college on the G.I. bill and later taught English. The twins were born in St. Joseph, Mo., where we moved in the interim until Guv found a job in Duluth, where Heidi was born. But I was the only one of the bunch born in Louisville. It made no difference that I was still a toddler when we moved away and remembered nothing. I clung to Kentucky as Mine, as Exotic, as One of the Things That Set Me Apart.
I had no memories of our house, but I knew its address: 100 Southwestern Parkway. I knew the name of the hospital where I was born: St. Joseph's Infirmary. I knew about Shawnee Park, which was down the street, and Fontaine Ferry, the neighborhood amusement park, and I knew about Bernheim Forest, where we picnicked, and Muhammad Ali, who my father had known when his name was still Cassius Clay. (He was a high school student with a part-time job at the college where my father taught.) All of these things seemed slightly magical to me--real, mine, and far away. During the Kentucky Derby, which we all watched, every year, I misted up a little at "My Old Kentucky Home" and sang along lustily, with meaning.
|And here's the log cabin in which I was born.|
This is Louisville. This is where I was born, I thought, as we steered our battleship gray rental car onto the highway and toward the city. Up busy Bardstown Road, past a Kroger's and a Shell Station, past a coffee shop (Heime Brothers) and a bar (Kerns Korner), turn right on Douglass Boulevard, a few more blocks to our friends' house. They lived on a tree-lined street of big old houses--split-timbered Tudors, castles with turrets and big porches, foursquares with circular driveways, presumably for the coach to pull up and let ladies with hoopskirts disembark. The neighborhood was beautiful, with big old trees, quiet winding streets and lush gardens, but it did not speak to me (though it did remind me a little of the East Duluth neighborhood where I grew up). I figured the resonance would come later, when we found Southwestern Parkway.
Our friends' house was big and rambling, with a fanlight over the front door, odd big closets where the cats like to hide, and porches I could live in. When I stepped out into their back yard, fragrant with nodding poppies and soldier-like irises and oh so many blooming pale pink peonies, I lost all ambition. I didn't want to tour around, finding my roots; I wanted to sit under the pergola and chat until the sun grew too bright, and then retire to the upstairs screen porch, where I could read under the lazily rotating ceiling fan, keeping an eye on the mother robin, who was tending her eggs in a nest above the next-door-neighbors' bathroom window.
|There was no good reason to leave this beautiful yard.|
Later in the day, we roused ourselves from our pleasant torpor and went out and about. We walked through Old Louisville, and admired the mansions. They were mammoth, with beautiful details--gargoyles and mullioned windows, and ivy crawling up brick. Imagine having the wherewithal to build such magnificent houses! And then imagine building them within inches of your next-door-neighbor.
We drove past Spalding University, where my father taught when it was still called Nazareth College. We tried to find St. Joseph's, but it had been torn down. And then we headed along the parkway, looking for number 100.
|Nazareth College, way back before Guv taught here.|
|John Patrick and his camera.|
But how did I know this? From pictures, only from pictures. I had no memories. The house did not leave me cold, exactly; it just gave nothing back. It was just a house.
|See? Can't you just picture four little girls standing on these steps?|
|Here's the whole thing.|
I walked around the back, but I was afraid of trespassing, so I only took a quick peek, and no pictures. The yard was long and narrow. I glimpsed the sleeping porch, and a big tree--but surely not the same tree, 50 years later, the big old sycamore my mother had mentioned--and the place where we had had our swingset.
|The sleeping porch, aka the best room in the house, and the swingset beyond.|
I walked around to the front, climbed the steps, rang the doorbell. While I waited, I aimed every nerve toward that house, that yard, that porch. But I felt nothing. No one came out, and I was not bold enough to peer through the windows.
I was here, I thought. I walked right out that door, onto this porch, wearing a headscarf and red tennis shoes.
I conjured up the old photos in my brain, scrolled through my phone for the few I had downloaded, but I couldn't conjure the moment, the feelings, the sensibility. Oh, that mysterious front door. I wanted to walk through it again, even as I knew that the wallpaper, the rugs, the furniture, the people--ah, most importantly, the people--would all be different.
I walked back to the rental car, where my husband and our friend waited. Doug looked nonplussed; I thought you'd be more... His voice trailed off. Emotional? I said. I don't remember anything.
We drove away, back to our friends' house and the back yard and the friendly black Lab waiting for someone to throw him a ball.
What does it mean to be from somewhere? What makes a place speak to you? I remembered the first time Guv and Trish went to China. Guv had spent years studying Mandarin, first in the Army, and later with his Hong Kong students at UWS. It was years before he and my mother made it to Beijing, and when they did, When I got off the plane, I felt like I'd come home, he told me, and I never forgot that, never forgot that strange, instant and intense affinity he had for a place where he had never been, never lived, had no genetic connection. (We are not, as far as any genealogical studies have shown--and my brother Tommy has delved deep--Chinese.)
I felt something similar the first time I went to Ireland. Guv's mother was Irish, her people from County Clare and the Midlands, and I had been drawn to that country even as a child. I remember poring over the Time-Life history of Ireland, which I got for Christmas when I was 10, and I remember flying into Shannon Airport for the first time in 1989 with my friend Lila, looking down at all those patches of green, and feeling a great contentment roll over me, as though broken parts were now fitted back together.
|Bernheim Forest, 1957|
I had expected to feel something similar in Kentucky. I had wanted to feel something similar in Louisville, this place I had bragged about and claimed as my own. But I didn't. I liked it there; we had a great time; we ate good food and drank good beer and hiked at Bernheim Forest (which I did not remember, which did not resonate, but which was beautiful and green), we poked around in museums and went out for brunch and stood above the slow-moving Ohio River and looked across at Indiana. And, best of all, we spent time with good friends.
But it was not my home. It was just a way-station in my life, the place where my mother happened to be pregnant, and where I happened to come kicking and screaming into the world precisely one month early, the place where I had my first bottle, first learned to walk, had my first temper tantrum, slept on my first sleeping porch, and then--with the rest of the Hertzels--moved on.